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How Can Modern Medicine Relate to the Old Testament?

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by John A. Bloom


Many laws in the Pentateuch (Genesis-- Deuteronomy) relate to diet and hygiene for the Hebrew people. Theologians for centuries thought that these merely served as ceremonial function or formed a cultural barrier to separate Israel from the surrounding pagan cultures. However, with the rise of modern medicine and the germ theory of disease in the nineteenth century, it was recognized that obeying these laws also confers important health benefits. These commands are unique compared with the health practices of neighboring cultures in Old Testament times, suggesting that God inspired Moses in giving these laws. Moreover, they show that God’s rules are not arbitrary and that He has our best interest at heart.


Laws instructing people to wash after touching the dead or sick (Lv 13-15; Nm 19), to properly dispose of excrement and blood (Lv 17:13; Dt 23:12-13), and to isolate (quarantine) diseased individuals and anything that they touch (Lv 13) are extremely effective at limiting the spread of disease. Modern medicine has also shown that circumcision brings a health benefit-- the wives of circumcised men have a much lower risk of contracting cervical cancer because the lack of a foreskin reduces the male’s ability to harbor and transmit the human papillomavirus. Interestingly, the study of blood clotting factor levels in newborns has also shown that circumcision on the eighth day-- the age prescribed to Abraham (Gn 17:12)-- is the safest time in a male’s life to have this surgery.


As our understanding of germs and parasites improves, the Old Testament prohibitions against eating unclean animals, or even associating with them, receive increasing medical verification. For example, people commonly argue that we no longer need to treat pigs as unclean because we now know how to cook pork well. However, modern research on the flu virus shows that most new deadly strains of influenza arise under conditions where people are in close contact with pigs and birds. Pigs function as a bridge between the bird and human forms of influenza; thus new deadly flu outbreaks usually originate in China, Hong Kong, and other areas where people live in close proximity to pigs.


The medical benefits of many other commandments are well known, even if modern culture is not inclined to obey them. For example, avoiding adultery and fornication is the best way to protect oneself against sexually transmitted diseases (Ex 20;14; Pr 5); avoiding addictions will spare one from alcohol, drug, and tobacco related diseases (Pr 20:1; 23:19-21, 29-35); and prayer, meditation, and treating others fairly minimize the damaging effects of stress (Lv 19:13-18; Ps 23; 27:1-3; 91:3-7). Modern medicine shows that “living by the Book” brings many practical blessings, just as God promised (Ex 15:26), which makes it all the more reasonable to trust God regarding promised spiritual blessings.

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